Developing an 'age-friendly' culture

In this blog post Helen Tracey outlines how to avoid thinking about ageing as a problem and instead implement small changes to build an ‘age-friendly’ culture

A simple Google search gives us a clue as to why; key words like 'ill-health', 'hardship', 'inevitable' and 'irreversible' jump out from the screen. Ageing can seem a scary thing. But it needn't be this way, especially in the workplace.

If you're a small organisation with what you think is an older workforce, then ageing is probably going to be near the top of your priority list. Perhaps you’re worried about losing a big proportion of your best people to retirement in the coming years. Maybe this is mixed with concerns about pensions, and that health and performance issues could be on the horizon. However, the first step in dispelling these worries is to avoid thinking about ageing as a problem confined only to employees that fall above a certain age bracket. Instead, implement small changes that give a more balanced consideration to people of all ages, thereby building an 'age-friendly' culture.

A good place to start is educating managers and senior staff about the kinds of behaviours you want to see in the organisation. One of the most essential aspects of dealing with any workplace matter positively is that line managers have a strong relationship with their direct reports. However, even if this is the case, managers can be nervous about speaking to staff about issues because they don’t want to make age-based assumptions. While avoiding age discrimination is important, legislative compliance is only the foundation on which an organisation needs to build its age-friendly approach.

In empowering managers to have open conversations with all staff about perceived age-related issues such as health, performance and retirement, it’s important to challenge the myths around the connections these have with ageing. There is no evidence that performance declines with age. Older people aren't necessarily less tech-savvy or less open to learning and development. Age-related health decline has been much improved through better healthcare, meaning people are living longer, more active lives. However, this has meant that people may gain more caring responsibilities as they age; for children, and later for grandchildren and also their own parents. What all these areas call for is employers to be flexible in considering issues on a case-by-case basis, regardless of age.

Small organisations don’t necessarily need a standalone strategy for this, although they should test whether key policies and procedures such as performance management and flexible working are open to people of all ages and dealt with fairly and consistently. There are free online resources available to support the development of age-friendly practices, such as from the World Health Organization and Age UK. However, retirement and pensions are a complex area and employers are likely to want to seek specialist advice, starting with talking to their pension provider.

Therefore, a balanced approach to ageing isn't necessary about 'targeting' older workers, which has actually been shown to have negative consequences. Instead, an organisation should ensure that their needs are met through an age-friendly culture and practices that build an integrated, diverse workforce.

Author:Helen Tracey is Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Human Resource Management at Northumbria University

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